Say hello to Alexa - how we can use AI voice assistant technology in the social housing sector

by Chris Shaw


For many of us, “asking Alexa” is now a common feature of our everyday lives. If you have an AI voice assistant in your home you will be quite used to asking it to play you a piece of music, order some shopping, turn the heating on or switch on the lights.

I’ve no doubt they will also prove themselves to be useful in the coming months as the COVID-19 Coronavirus develops, particularly in relation to our elderly friends and relatives. As these vulnerable members of society are increasingly forced to self isolate, issues such as loneliness and social isolation will become as challenging perhaps as the virus itself. Any tech which can help ease these problems - even if it’s just by making a video call a lot easier - has the potential to be part of the solution.

While devices such as Amazon Echo are now commonplace in our homes, there has been little analysis to date of their potential application in the social housing sector. Beyond one trial carried out by Housing Solutions last year, it has remained a topic reserved for “blue sky thinking”. It probably isn’t going to make it to the top of the agenda in business planning meetings anytime soon.

The potential benefits of this technology, however, are there for the taking. And for social housing providers, they extend beyond the elderly and the vulnerable. The technology is relatively affordable and easy to use, and with some imagination it could be adapted to benefit both tenants and landlords.

While I am not suggesting Registered Providers should immediately rush out and buy all their customers an Amazon Echo, I think we have reached the stage where they should begin to explore the options. This means asking questions about what the tech could do specifically for the social housing sector, and whether an investment in it could produce an attractive return with real and quantifiable business benefits.

For older and vulnerable people such as the sick or disabled, the benefits are more obvious. In terms of loneliness and social isolation, high quality and easy to use video is now a common feature of the tech. This means people who do live on their own, or far away from relatives, can still have meaningful social contact with the people who matter to them.

Beyond this, AI voice assistants have the ability to keep people more safe and secure. And when paired with Internet of Things sensors there is the potential for some truly life enhancing applications.

People who need to take regular medication, for example, can easily be reminded to do so by an AI voice assistant. If there is a risk associated with someone with dementia wandering off, AI tech and sensors can be used to identify when this has happened and inform those who need to know. If someone had a fall at home, but was conscious, the technology would enable them to control heating and lighting to keep them comfortable and, most importantly, to call for help.

There are many other possibilities. If a window is left open beyond a certain time of day, or if a door is unlocked, Alexa or Echo can let you know.

For housing providers, the technology has other potential applications to improve repairs and maintenance service delivery. Tenants could potentially tell you their boiler has broken and an AI voice assistant could automatically populate the relevant form for a landlord. A repair visit could be scheduled with no involvement needed from a member of staff. There would be no need for the tenant to go online to your website or make a phone call or speak to anyone.

There are many tenant/landlord interactions where the technology could be utilised. From making complaints to reporting anti-social behaviour, tenants could tell their AI voice assistant and the landlord could be sent all the necessary information in an instant. There is even the possibility for tenants to do this in languages other than English and for landlords to use the tech to communicate with tenants in their own language.

If you’re expecting a repair or maintenance visit, Alexa or Echo could let you know when they are due to arrive and even send a picture of the operative so the tenant knows who to expect. If people don’t have wifi at home, but only have a smartphone there is still the option to benefit from this kind of application through an app.

Door entry systems on blocks of flats could also be paired with AI voice assistant tech - and could offer a cheaper option than current expensive telephone entry systems. On arrival, visitors would press a buzzer with a video feed sent to a tenant’s phone, or to the Echo or Alexa device, so the tenant can make sure it is a bona fide visitor.

The possibilities are endless. Tenants with mobility issues, for example, could also benefit from voice activated controls of heating and lighting. Or customers could use it to obtain information from their social housing landlord: such as their own rent balance.

Some tenants, of course, might have concerns about AI voice assistants “listening in” on them. And it won’t be for everybody. But there are ways you can reassure tenants and effective communication strategies will be needed to ensure there is a good level of take up and correct use of the technology. There are also things you can do in terms of privacy options to ensure they are less intrusive.

Should providers decide to invest in devices on behalf of tenants, there are options to give people choices on how much functionality they opt to use. So, for example, a landlord might install devices with basic functionality for free in people’s homes but offer people additional optional extras which could be paid for. Some of the safety and security monitoring options for the elderly or disabled could fall into this category.

As we see wide scale adoption of this technology across society, there is no reason to believe the social housing sector should be excluded. Indeed, there are many specific applications which the sector could benefit from. Now is the time to explore these opportunities in my view.

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